Just Chute Me

Two down: First-time sky diver Josh Hill, above, free falls while attached to instructor Ike Eichenlaub of Skydive Orange of Orange, Va. Tandem sky diving allows novices to jump on their first day. Below, instructor Mike French leaps with another client.
Two down: First-time sky diver Josh Hill, above, free falls while attached to instructor Ike Eichenlaub of Skydive Orange of Orange, Va. Tandem sky diving allows novices to jump on their first day. Below, instructor Mike French leaps with another client. (Photos By Dan Wayland)
By Anne Farris
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 24, 2005

As I stood at the edge of the airplane's open door, the wind bit my face and sucked what I thought was my last gasp of breath. Yes, I was harnessed to the belly of an expert sky diver, but together we were about to hurl ourselves to earth 13,000 feet below, supported only by the air that would billow a piece of synthetic fabric.

I gazed down on the patchwork of farms and forests, and I felt my first moment of hesitation about a jump for which I had long yearned. Instinct and the will to live gripped my legs; rationality whispered that maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. But thoughts of survival quickly succumbed to anticipation and excitement. At any rate, suddenly there was no more time to think or even feel -- my tandem partner hurled his 175 pounds out of the plane, and I went with him.

Earlier that day, as my boyfriend, Perry, and I drove two hours south of Washington on a clear and sunny Saturday morning, I had pondered the question my friends and family had asked about our trip out to little Orange, Va. Exactly why do I so want to throw myself from a soaring airplane?

Well, I love heights and speed, I told them. What better combines the two than sky diving? I'm not into extreme sports, but I love vistas as much as an acrophobe loves solid ground. But neither was the complete answer.

It goes back 20 years, to when I was a cub newspaper reporter writing a feature article about a military air show. I got a chance to report the story directly from the belly of a C-130 cargo plane, where I watched soldiers parachute from a cavernous side door into the wild blue yonder. I was safely belted to a seat at the opening edge, but as I witnessed the men drop into oblivion, I wondered what that could possibly be like. And I've had a hankering ever since to know.

So when Perry called my bluff and booked reservations at an outfitter called Skydive Orange, just south of Culpeper, I jumped (pun intended) at the chance. As we left Washington and the city gave way to shopping malls and then the rolling bucolic hills of the Blue Ridge, my excitement and last-minute apprehension began building. When we finally got to the large airplane hangar that is the outfitter's headquarters, it was already filled with men and women clad in jumpsuits preparing for the next flight.

These days, anyone can sky dive without much planning or effort beyond booking a reservation. Until 20 years ago, new jumpers were required to attend six hours of classes for a risky solo jump from an altitude of 3,000 feet. Within seconds after jumping, a static line attached to the plane would pop the parachute, and the jumper would float down and clumsily navigate the landing, frequently missing the target.

Today, with the advent of tandem jumping -- whereby a novice can dive with an instructor -- and refined and more reliable canopy equipment, jumpers simply show up, attend a 10-minute briefing about simple rules and procedures, watch a film about the jump, sign seemingly endless liability forms and off they go. Tandem jumping opened the sport to the common thrill-seeker.

However, a cheap thrill it's not. First-time tandem jumps range from $165 to $235. An accompanying photographer can click stills or film videos of your jump for an extra $100 to $150.

For those still faint of heart, the following may be one final reason to consider not sky diving: The parachute for Perry and his instructor failed to open properly. Perry said later that he first noticed something was amiss when his instructor spouted an expletive after attempting to deploy the parachute, only to find the lines tangled above their heads. Perry said he uttered, "Houston, we have a problem," as he watched the instructor frantically jostle the cords.

The duo plunged 2,000 feet, and the instructor was moments away from releasing his reserve chute when the cords popped into place and the main parachute filled like a balloon. They floated safely to the landing target, arriving before I did -- even though I had jumped first -- because of their extra, unintentional free-fall time. But the expert was so shaken by the rare event that he collected his paycheck, packed up his gear and headed home, declaring he would make no more jumps that day.

Perry was amazingly calm and collected. He even laughed about the mishap.

Before our jump, as I wormed into my jumpsuit, skullcap and goggles, I asked my tandem jumper, Nick Kaminski, questions about his ability and confidence -- which would need to become mine. "I make six to 12 jumps a day, and I've been jumping for 13 years," he said in a cavalier yet professional tone. The outfitting company, affiliated with the U.S. Parachute Association, chalks up about 20,000 free-fall jumps a year. And the day we chose offered perfect conditions -- a slight breeze and sunshine. The trip would have been rescheduled if weather conditions were considered too windy, lightning-filled or otherwise dangerous. Ten of us boarded a deHavilland Twin Otter, which has twin turboprop engines for fast climbing and was the type of plane used in the 2001 rescue of physician Ronald S. Shemenski from the South Pole. If it was good enough for Dr. Shemenski and Nick, it was good enough for me, even though a plaque in the plane read, "Never underestimate the stupidity of a group of people."

We ascended to 13,000 feet and Nick said it was time for him to strap his belly to my back so we could be the first pair to jump. Once I heard the harness clips click, I knew there was no turning back. Pinned together, we shuffled to the open door -- and jumped. Just like that. We arched our backs in a spread-eagle position as we spiraled down. There was a powerful surge of air that scoured my teeth and stretched my skin while we fell at a speed of 120 mph for 50 long, and yet simultaneously short, seconds. The rush of adrenaline and exhilaration was more forceful than the uncontrollable pull of gravity, but there was little sensation of actual falling or heights. Instead, it felt like lying on a bed of air as I could see the ground in the far distance closing in. I screamed with excitement, but my scream was instantly sucked into the rushing air.

At some point, my heart and mind seemed to leave my body, return and leave again. Time did not exist. Seconds felt like hours, minutes like seconds. If Nick had not told me before that our free fall would last one minute, I never would have been able to recount how long we rushed toward earth unsupported.

At 5,000 feet, Nick deployed the main parachute on his back. With a quick tug, we were set upright and began a four-minute floating descent. Unlike the free fall, it was perfectly quiet and serene. All my senses and bearings returned.

"This is beautiful," I said. "I guess you know you have a great job."

"Yeah," he said. "Nice corner office view." He taught me how to use the hand toggles to steer the parachute to the right and left and bring it to an almost complete midair stop. We landed as gently as if stepping from a carriage, within 50 yards of the hangar. It was all over too soon.

After 20 years, my curiosity and pursuit of thrill had been more than satisfied. And even with Perry's delayed parachute opening, I could not stop thinking during the drive home about how much I wanted to do this again.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company